Recently the last season of Psych hit Netflix. I didn’t remember liking most of those episodes when they aired, but I do remember being largely satisfied with the ending. Watching the season again mostly confirmed those memories. I have also been watching 30 Rock. It has a really truly terrific ending. I wanted to write about how these shows shook the trend of TV shows falling apart at the end and having terrible endings. The problem is, the more I thought about shows that I like, the more I realized that most of my favorite shows have really good endings. In fact, I can think of more good endings than bad. Honestly, as much as I like it, Psych kind of gets stuck in that bad ending rut, if the whole season and not just the last episode are taken into account. Coming up with a satisfying ending for a long running TV show is clearly hard, though not surprisingly, good shows manage to do this more often than not.
The problem is with the nature of American TV. Shows are designed to be eternally in the middle act. There is a pilot, an opening, but after that most shows are not really moving anywhere. They are telling stories, but the action is designed to leave the characters right where they started. Seinfeld is not building to anything and there is no natural end point for Friends. Psych is set up to tell mysteries, the characters may grow and change some, but the central relationships are firm. The longer a show runs, the more likely it is that things start to break down. One change causes another change, then another, rippling out until the changes start to tear the fabric of the show apart. The trick is getting the most out of a show but ending before it changes into something else entirely.
Shows tend to end badly for two reasons. Or possibly for one reason depending on how one looks at it. They either end too soon or end too late. Take My Name is Earl, for example. It is, or at least started as, a pretty darn good show. (That first season is excellent, but the show kind of lost its way but the end.) Still it is a show with a built an out. Earl has a list; the show ends when he completes that list. However, the show actually ends on a cliffhanger, with a shocking revelation about Earl’s black son, Earl Jr., having a different father than everyone suspected. The show has the worst kind of ending: no ending at all. It is hard to say that a show with 4 seasons was cancelled too soon, especially one that was as far off track as Earl by the end, but it still deserved some kind of resolution. That is a show that ended too soon. On the other hand there are shows like Scrubs, which clearly went on too long. For give or take four seasons, Scrubs was some fine television. However, the show stayed on the air longer than was good for it. So long that most of the original cast moved on. It is hard to find a satisfying conclusion for a show that ran for the better part of a decade when the characters that everyone loved are no longer part of the show. That show hung on way too long. Good shows can make the best of those situations. Arrested Development certainly ended too soon, but its first ending, the end of season 3, was as good a wrap up as possible. And The Office went sorely off track in the later seasons, only to rally in its final season and go out with a truly excellent final episode.
The important thing for an ending is tone. While something more poignant is possible and sometimes fitting, with a show that has been running the better part of a decade cheese might be the best option. At least for a comedy, with a drama that is a different proposition. Malcolm in the Middle’s ending is occasionally preposterous, but also touching. Completely fitting for the show, though. The idea that Lois has planned out Malcom’s future entirely, right down to how he becomes President, is equally ridiculous and expected. It is a perfect example of what shows should strive for. It feels momentous, clearly an ending, but still a part of the show.
Psych is a show that seems to have held on a little too long. There are still some good episodes in the last season, but it feels very flabby. The mystery plots are muddled or nonexistent. The show is more concerned on how it is going to bring the series to a close. Characters are moving around. First, Chief Vick is removed. Then Lassiter is made chief. Then Juliette leaves with Chief Vick. The central character relationships that were the heart of the show break down over these last ten episodes and it feels drawn out. There are highlights, like the first episode of the season which is a Guy Ritchie pastiche filled with Harry Potter jokes and one last Cary Elwes appearance. Honestly, it is one of the great episodes of the series. Then there is the last episode, titled The Break Up. Shawn is trying to break up, not with Juliette but with Gus. He is going to San Francisco to be with Juliette. This decision is made easier with the new head detective, who is good enough that she doesn’t need Shawn and Gus to help. It is amazing how well the episode manages to give a fitting ending to each and every character. Lassiter is chief and has a wife and kid, eternal whipping boy McNabb finally gets a promotion to detective and Henry stumbles into teaching criminology. Shawn relocates to San Francisco to be with Juliette and work with Chief Vick (with a bonus shout out to Monk thrown in there) and finally proposes to Juliette. There is a decent mystery tangled up in there, but it is mostly tying a bow on everything. Season 8 of Psych is not a good season of TV, but it does manage a quality ending to the series.
The other ending I recently watched was that of 30 Rock. I didn’t give that show its due when it was on the air. I don’t like being told what to watch. I take a slightly absurd amount of pride in the fact that I came across Arrested Development early in its run. I started watching it somewhere around episode 10 when it originally aired. I was the one telling all my friends and acquaintances to watch it. The same goes for The Office, which I discovered at the start of its second season. With 30 Rock, I was seeing all the gushing love for it online, but to me it seemed to come at the expense of shows I like more. I was a fool. I’ve now watched the show through on Netflix several times. Every time I watch it I like it more. The ending, specifically the last three episodes, are just about perfect.
30 Rock is a show with high peaks, but no significant troughs. It nearly captures the manic pace and interconnectedness of Arrested Development and keeps it up for more than twice the run time. It should be no surprise that it has a great ending. Still, it ends as well as possible. With a show about a show, the ending is obvious. The show must get cancelled. This happens in A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World, the third from last episode. It has Liz desperately trying to save TGS while Criss prepares for the arrival of their adopted kids. Also, Jack looks for his replacement. It ends in what could have been the last episode of the show, with TGS cancelled and Liz meeting her kids, who act just like Tracy and Jenna. But that is not the ending; there is a two episode coda. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Liz tries to deal with being a stay at home mom, but it isn’t for her. She ends up doing one more episode of TGS to avoid paying Tracy thanks to an odd clause in his contract. How it ends is known, but it lets the show give the characters an extended farewell, one last chance for everyone to shine. It is a perfect encapsulation of the show. Perfect character beats between silly pratfalls and constant in jokes. The show goes out on a song from ‘The Rural Juror,’ Jenna’s movie from way back near the start of the series. It is funny and touching and perfect.
30 Rock is the perfect example of how to end a TV show, though few shows have been consistently well written enough to pull it off. Psych does things less well, but it still manages to salvage things, leaving a largely pleasant taste in the viewer’s mouth. Both of these are good shows, and they have good endings. Which the more I think about it the less it seems exceptional. I hope the few show currently running shows I’m into can have as good of endings as these two shows did. Let’s hope Parks and Recreation goes out on top, and Always Sunny in Philadelphia can go out on the bottom. And if we are all lucky, maybe someone will perform a mercy killing on The Simpsons and Family Guy. But that is another subject entirely.